Harlequin Duck

Histrionicus histrionicus

Of the more than 140 species of duck worldwide—a wondrous diversity of web-footed, broad-billed waterfowl that variously dive and dabble and sieve for food in just about any aquatic habitat imaginable—only three breed along the banks of cool mountain streams and rivers: the Blue Duck (Hymenolaimus malacharhynos) of New Zealand; the Torrent Duck (Merganetta armatafrom South America; and the Harlequin Duck, native to the northern Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

Icy, swift-flowing water over slick rock seems a rather perilous place to make a living for any creature lacking fins and gills. Add to this a propensity for waddling about and the situation becomes almost quixotic. Yet the Harlequin Duck is utterly at home in such places, paddling into nine-mile-per-hour currents and diving to the riverbed for aquatic invertebrates. Its underwater propulsion comes mainly from powerful kicks, while partially spread wings may help the submerged duck to steer. 

Harlequin Ducks nest along mountainous streams from Oregon to Alaska (and on the East Coast in northern Quebec and Labrador), venturing as far inland as Glacier National Park, Montana. In the summer, broods of six to eight ducklings hatch from a scraped-out, moss- and conifer-needle-lined hollow near water.  Almost immediately they acquire their sea (and river) legs, following the hen through rapids and riffles toward slower-flowing feeding areas. As winter snows entomb the riverbanks, Harlequin Ducks head to sea, toward the cold waters of the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Equally at ease on the ocean, Harlequin Ducks are a regular but nonetheless beguiling sight on the Oregon coast. Males or drakes are garbed in a motley vestment of slate blue and chestnut patches, with bold white and black stripes; the species takes its common name from a masked, variegated character in Italian comedic theater—the harlequin—who was a mainstay of the so-called commedia dell'arte in 16th-century Italy.The binomial, Histrionicus histrionicus, is a nod to the theatrical connection as well: “histrionic” means “of or related to actors and acting”. It can also connote overacting, and anyone who’s heard the comic squeaking of these ducks can appreciate the word’s nuance.

The base of the many rocks and islands that make up Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge are an excellent place to watch these gorgeous birds in winter.

Facts About Harlequin Duck

-Not strictly a diving duck; will dabble for prey and upend in shallows

-Dense, air-fluffed feathers insulate against frigid river and ocean waters; so buoyant that ducks will bob to the surface like corks after dives

-Pairs make long-term monogamous bonds; individuals live from 10-15 years in the wild

-Sometimes called “sea mice” for their distinctly unduck-like squeak